Southern California nail-salon owners worry Newsom’s coronavirus remark could spur anti-Asian backlash

Leaders in Orange County’s Vietnamese American community say they were “surprised and disappointed” with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who a day earlier pointed to a nail salon as the first site of community spread of the coronavirus.

It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it.

“This whole thing started in the state of California, the first community spread, in a nail salon,” Newsom said during his news briefing Thursday in answer to a question from a reporter.

“I’m very worried about that.”

But the governor’s words also worry people involved in the predominantly Vietnamese American nail salon industry. Some said Friday, at a press conference in Garden Grove, that his tone could add fuel to a growing anti-Asian sentiment related to the coronavirus.

“The xenophobia is growing as much as the pandemic,” said Tammy Tran, an Orange County community leader.

Tam Nguyen, president of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and Laguna Hills, said Newsom’s comments could lead to discrimination against the Vietnamese-run salons and prompt some customers to stay away once the shops, currently closed due to the pandemic, are allowed to reopen.

“In this highly charged environment, some folks could use that for their own purposes,” said Nguyen, whose recently formed philanthropic organization, “Nailing it for America,” joined the industry group Pro Nails Association to co-host the press conference.

Several reports cite a growing number of assaults, harassment and hate crimes against Asian Americans. Many have been blamed for the virus arriving in the United States after it originated in China. About 80 % of California’s 11,000 nail salons – including some 6,000 in Southern California – are owned by Vietnamese Americans.

Newsom was asked during his state-update press conference Friday to respond to the concerns of Vietnamese Americans, and to elaborate on when and where coronavirus first spread in California.

The governor declined to offer details, citing health confidentiality laws, but he praised the Vietnamese American community and its entrepreneurial spirit. He described the nail industry as “noble” and said that for many the business is “an exit point out of poverty.”

The comment he made Thursday, he said, was “just a factual statement, and it was not a statement to be extrapolated as an indictment…of an industry I deeply respect.”

Vietnamese American leaders on Friday also lauded the governor, but said his initial statement still could be taken apart and used against them.

While Newsom’s intentions are well-meaning, what he said on Thursday presents “huge concerns for our community, and will have a huge impact on the industry,” said community leader Tran.

Nguyen, of Advance Beauty College, said the shutdown has already hurt the nail salon industry, which includes many mom and pop shops. He estimated up to 30 % may never reopen.

While it’s unclear when nail shops will resume business, industry leaders offered a plan for when that happens.

Nail salon workers will be required to wear face masks and gloves, and masks will be recommended for customers as well. Salons also plan to invest in disinfectant machines to deep clean and disinfect all manicure tables, pedi-spa chairs and lounges. They also will install table shields between manicure tables and pedi-spa chairs, and keep a 6-foot separation between them while complying with all social distancing rules.

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Author: Roxana Kopetman

Mercury News Business